Just like some print columnist run classic columns when they are on vacation, I’m rerunning this inspirational energy efficiency story, first posted July 25, 2008.
Energy efficiency is by far the biggest low-carbon resource available. It is also, as we’ll see, every bit as renewable as wind power, solar photovoltaic, and Concentrated solar thermal power Solar Baseload.
People who have little experience with what serious energy efficiency investments can do for a company or a state “” this means you, neoclassical economists who consistently overestimate the cost of climate mitigation! - think it is a one-shot resource wherein you pick the low hanging fruit. In fact, fruit grow back. The efficiency resource never gets exhausted because technology keeps improving and knowledge spreads to more and more people.
After leading the country in comprehensive efficiency efforts that have kept per capita electricity demand flat for three decades, California does not merely believe it can continue at this pace, they plan to accelerate their efforts and actually keep electricity demand itself flat. I have discussed California’s efforts and plans in previous posts (see Policies in Need of Californication and California makes efficiency “business as usual”), and will discuss them further in Part 4.
The focus of this post is the best corporate example of the inexhaustible nature of the energy efficiency resource “” Dow Chemical’s Louisiana division.
You might have predicted that by 1982, after two major energy shocks, if any company in the country had captured the low-hanging fruit of energy savings, it would be one as energy intensive as a world-class chemical manufacturer. Nonetheless, energy manager for the division’s more than 20 plants, Ken Nelson, began a yearly contest in 1982 to identify and fund energy-saving projects. His success was nothing short of astonishing.
The first year had 27 winners requiring a total capital investment of $1.7 million with an average annual return on investment (ROI) of 173%. After those projects, many in Dow felt that there couldn’t be others with such high returns. The skeptics were wrong. The 1983 contest had 32 winners requiring a total capital investment of $2.2 million in a 340% return - a savings of the company’s $7.5 million in the first year and every year after that.
Even as fuel prices declined in the mid-1980s, the savings kept growing. Contest winners increasingly achieved the economic gains through process redesign to improve production yield and capacity. By 1988, these productivity gains exceeded the energy and environmental gains. The average return to the 1989 contest was the highest ever, an astounding 470% in 1989, 64 projects costing $7.5 million saved the company $37 million a year “” a payback of 11 weeks.
Anyone would predict that after 10 years, and nearly 700 projects, the 2000 employees would be tapped out of ideas. Yet the contest in 1991, 1992, 1993 each had in excess of 120 winners with an average our ally of 300%. Total savings to Dow from the projects of just those three years exceed $75 million a year.
Here’s the shocking part: